The whole problem is this: how to utter God in a practice of faith where I must decide what I wish to do with the woman or man I find in my path - make of him or her a human being with a right to life or a slave for life.
Jean-Marc Ela, "Gospel In Resistance", in African Cry, p. 139
This single sentence, the penultimate one in the final essay in Ela's collection of essays on Christianity in Africa, has haunted me for eighteen years. I encountered it in a seminar on liberation theology, the spring semester of 1993, raised it as the key question underpinning much of what should constitute not only an ethics but also an anthropology. I proceeded to write what was perhaps my worst, ever, seminary paper. The professor, Josiah Young, wrote a single comment - that I seemed to have other concerns, and the paper was a muddle as a result - with which, at the time, I took umbrage. I was trying to finish my last semester of seminary, graduate, and plan my wedding simultaneously. So, yeah, I had other "concerns". It didn't take long, however, for me to hang my head and realize that Josiah was quite right. The paper was crap. Having the best of intentions didn't prevent me from writing garbage, as I floundered and flailed my way toward coming to terms with the simple question - Who are Others to us, claimed by God in Christ through the Spirit, which should also place a question mark before our own identity as well.
With recent events here in the United States and abroad pushing me toward a broader acceptance not only of certain explicitly leftist diagnoses of our malaise but also a renewed interest in finding sources for resistance, I have, in recent weeks, been doing more floundering. The summer saw me attempt a re-read of Pierre Duhem, a clear attempt at escape. I have started, and set aside, Charles Taylor's "classic", The Source of the Self as both inadequate for the task, and a hopeless, vague muddle. I went through Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven, to find myself confronted by frustration that, while asking good questions, his answers tended to the unpalatable, to say the least.
Which led me, in a roundabout way, to Dwight Hopkins' Being Human: Race, Culture, and Religion. Explicitly written in the tradition of black theology of liberation, Hopkins explores ways to say what it means to be human that is faithful to the intersection of our muddled reality and the claim God places upon us. That we are human, and that this word has implications for our life of faith, is a question to be answered, rather than an assumption with which to live. Our world is filled to overflowing with forces and voices and institutions that deny the basic humanity of so many, it should be obvious to even the most unreflective soul that "being human" is disputed territory. To affirm humanity in the midst of racism and sexism, that God's revelation in Jesus demonstrates God's choice to be with us in this way and not another - a marginalized, Nazarene Jew born to an unwed mother, dying a political revolutionary - already tells us much about what "being human" means. Unpacking the various ways our contemporary world places human beings - within culture, within races, as "selves" - can go a long way toward answering the question theological anthropology seeks to answer.
At its heart, without Hopkins' knowing it, is Jean-Marc Ela's wonderful question to us. This question that has plagued me, to which I gave a woefully inadequate answer nearly two decades ago. While I do not believe Hopkins' work will present a final answer, it should, I would think, provide a way of thinking and understanding that will help me stop flailing.